On January 17, 2017, the number of bald eagles that can be killed by wind farm permit holders will increase from the current legal number of 1,100 to 4,200—almost a quadrupling. The Fish and Wildlife Service is issuing new 30-year permits that allow the additional eagles to be killed or injured without prosecution under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The fee for a long-term permit is $36,000. A permitted facility that exceeds its authorized eagle kill limit will not be fined or criminally prosecuted, although it could be “subject to an enforcement action at any time for unpermitted prior take of eagles.” [i] Under the previous rule, the permits were for a five-year term.
The new permits will be reviewed every five years by an independent third party. Companies are required to submit reports of how many eagles they kill. Currently, companies report killed or injured eagles on a voluntary basis to the Interior Department, which does not release the information.
Golden and bald eagles are not endangered species but are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibit killing, selling or otherwise harming eagles, their nests or eggs without a permit. Deaths of the more rare golden eagles will be allowed without penalty as long as the wind companies minimize losses by retrofitting power poles to reduce the risk of electrocution and/or take other mitigation measures.
U.S. Eagle Population
The population of bald eagles is estimated at 143,000 in the lower 48 states and Alaska. The Fish and Wildlife Service believes it will increase to an equilibrium size of 228,000. The golden eagle population is estimated at 41,000, but the Fish and Wildlife Service believes it may decrease to an equilibrium size of 26,000. For that reason, the permitted number of golden eagles killed “would still be set at zero, requiring that all authorized take be offset by compensatory mitigation.”
Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it is illegal to kill or injure eagles without a permit. The penalties can range up to a $500,000 fine and two years in prison.
In the last 18 months, the Fish and Wildlife Service resolved five civil enforcement actions concerning unauthorized incidental take of eagles at 15 different wind facilities, resulting in $55,000 in civil penalties and another $1.8 million to develop technologies to reduce the number of bird deaths.
Two large wind farms were assessed fines in the past several years. In 2013, Duke Energy Renewables was found to be criminally liable for killing 163 protected birds, including 14 golden eagles, at two of its wind farms in Wyoming. The company agreed to pay a $1 million fine and another $900,000 in restitution and compensatory mitigation. Last year, PacifiCorp was the second wind energy company to be prosecuted. It was fined $2.5 million for killing 38 golden eagles and hundreds of other protected migratory birds at its wind projects in Wyoming.
Wind farms are groups of turbines that are very tall–as tall as 30-story buildings–and with spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet’s wingspan. Blades can reach speeds of up to 170 miles per hour at the tips, creating tornado-like vortexes. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, as many as 500 golden eagles are killed by collisions with wind towers, power lines, buildings, cars and trucks each year. [ii] The American Bird Conservancy estimates that the wind industry killed over 2,000 eagles in three decades.[iii]
The Obama Administration is further encouraging the continued development of wind energy by allowing wind farms to kill and injure protected birds. A 30-year permit allows the offense to continue for the life of the wind farm–not just for a few years as wind farms develop mitigation measures against killing protected birds. The new “30-year” rule takes effect 3 days before inauguration day. President-elect Trump could change the rule or do away with it, but the process could take months or years.
[i] CNS News, Federal Permits Will Allow Wind Farms to Kill More Bald Eagles, December 21, 2016, http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/barbara-hollingsworth/new-regulations-will-allow-wind-farms-kill-4200-bald-eaglesyear
[ii] Fox News, Final wind-turbine rule permits thousands of eagle deaths, December 14, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/12/14/final-wind-turbine-rule-permits-thousands-eagle-deaths.html
[iii] Scientific American, U.S. Sued over 30-Year Permits to Legally Kill Eagles,